28 Mar 2013

One Mile Away: driving young people from crime

Birmingham’s gang war made headlines when Charlene Ellis and Latisha Shakespeare were killed in a drive-by shooting. A new film, One Mile Away, looks at efforts to end the gang feuding in the city.

“I know loads of people who’ve gone to prison or who’ve been stabbed. It makes me sick to think one time someone can be there and the next time they’re bleeding. It’s mad, really.” (Remell, age 15).

“I’m amazed I haven’t held a gun or stabbed someone. It’s because I go to church. I know right from wrong.” (Shane, age 16).

“I know people who’ve been stabbed, people who are in gangs. To keep out, you have to stay in school, look for colleges, aspire to be something.” (Evon, age 16).

At Holyhead Academy in Birmingham, pupils open up to me about the realities of life as they know them.

They’ve just watched the film One Mile Away, a documentary feature about the attempts to broker peace between two notorious rival gangs in the city. The film’s coming out in cinemas this Friday, but it’s already being shown in schools, part of a drive to persuade youngsters away from crime.

After the viewing, the children question two of the stars of the film, former gang members themselves. Dylan Duffus comes from Handsworth, in Birmingham’s B20 and B21 postcodes, and the location of Holyhead Academy. Gang members associate those postcodes with the Burger Bar Boys.

I’ve got friends who are dead or serving life in prison. I can see you little kids getting enticed. Somebody’s got to tell you it’s wrong. – Dylan Duffus

The film looks at the efforts made initially by Dylan Duffus and a man called Matthias “Shabba” Thompson to make peace. Shabba is from Aston, postcode B6, and so is from the Johnson Crew. At its height, the violent feud between the two sides contributed to Birmingham becoming known as the place with the highest concentration of gun crime in the country.

They came to national prominence in 2003, when two teenage girls, Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, were killed when they were caught in a drive-by shooting outside a party on new year’s eve.

Now some of those involved in the Burger/Johnson feud have tried to stop the violence. They’re taking their message to all the places impressionable youngsters are found.

“What made you stop wanting to be involved in gangs?” asks one child.

Dylan Duffus tells him: “I’ve got friends who are dead or serving life in prison. I can see you little kids getting enticed. Somebody’s got to tell you it’s wrong. I come from where you come from and I’m telling you, you don’t want to get involved.”

“What kind of lifestyle do you think gang members are looking for?” comes another question. Answer: “It looks so glamorous but it’s horrible, you’re always watching your back”.

“How did the war start between the Johnnies and the Burgers?” one child asks. “I’ve no idea”, says Dylan. The truth is, most of the people involved don’t know why the feud began. But many of them experience its impact: a spiral of violence, drug dealing and other crimes, prison and death.

Which is why, one day, Shabba decided enough was enough and got in touch with filmmaker Penny Woolcock, who he’d met when she was making another film in Birmingham. She helped him contact Dylan and they started talking about how to get the two sides to make peace and filming what happened.

It’s been a difficult process. For 11 months Shabba made no progress with anyone from his side. But finally, it led to an uneasy peace, they claim. They point to statistics that show gang-related crimes are down between a third and half in the associated postcodes.

Dylan Duffus told me after the viewing: “It isn’t a truce with everybody shaking hands. It is very difficult. People have lost friends and family, people are in jail doing life, some people don’t walk, it’s very serious, it’s a touchy subject. We have to make sure the kids don’t go through the same pain.”

The principal at Holyhead, Martin Bayliss, believes his pupils will understand the film’s message. He told me: “Let’s not underestimate the young men themselves. They see, in the end, that nobody is happy going to prison, dying or getting stabbed. We will use the film whenever we can to accentuate that view: that the young men have it in themselves, that it is never too late to move forward and change.”